It was a sunny summer day on August 7, 2011. There was a light breeze in the trees, and the waves in the water at the family summer house rippled ever so slightly, beckoning boaters to bask in the luxuriantly laid out carpet d’eau (that’s fancy for “water”).
Perhaps the ensuing disaster was foreshadowed by my cousin’s glib “Have a nice 3 hour tour!” as he left for the city. It could have been that my grandma’s cavalier “I don’t need a life jacket!” portended events to come.
Or the pontoon boat might just be cursed. After all, it was constructed right around 1902 and the most valuable thing on it is the MacGuyvered lawn mower motor that serves as an engine. Not really a recipe for success. We even took deck chairs with us because, long ago, the boat lost its upholstered seats to a family of ducks that made them home.
The day before this adventure took place, my godfather showed me how to drive the ungainly bucket of the sea. There were a number of tricks involved, including more than a little finess, some fine tuning, and a variety of keys, safety latches, duct tape, and bungee cords to keep the whole thing afloat and in motion. Motion, for our purposes, is a relative term. One would certainly agree that turtles have the ability to move, but one could also argue that they are better suited to sunning themselves on a log. So it is with this boat, hereafter referred to as The Bucket.
In an effort to impress and entertain, I took my newly minted captain’s license (a laminated piece of paper, left over from student course evaluations, that declares in bold #2 pencil: “u did gud”), my sister, my grandma, and my husband out on The S(O)S Sea Bucket. We brought books, fishing supplies, the aforementioned plastic deck chairs, water bottles, and all the provisions one could need for a morning on the lake. My mother called after us “Don’t forget to take a cell phone if you’re going behind the island!” and we begrudgingly obliged, tucking a smart phone into one of the remaining cup holders in the weathered table permanently secured to the deck of The Bucket.
After I applied the requisite secret password and safety key to release the clutch, got the motor started with a whimper, a bang, and no shortage of smoke, and moved the boat from neutral to reverse, we backed away from the dock. We had gone about 20 feet (that’s 89347923874 Canadian centimetres) when the safety key mysteriously fell apart, rendering the gas-to-engine part of affairs unrendered.
Since I didn’t want to ground the boat on my first try, and the wind was pushing us quickly back to the beach, I hopped into the murky, mucky late water in my jeans (my mother’s oft-repeated refrain “Why are you wearing jeans near water again!?” echoing in my head) and guided The Bucket back to the dock. We tied back up, and my obliging godfather came to see what I did this time. He jimmied a new “universal safety key” out of a key chain and a few pieces of plastic, and with the same finess and cloud of smoke as five minutes earlier, we were off for real!
We puttered at a rate of about -3 knots per day against the wind to a spot behind the island that would be ideal for fishing due to its proximity to the reedy, sandy lake bed. We dropped anchor, turned off the engine (leaving the fake universal key carefully in place!), and settled in to engage in our respective activities of reading a book, reading from a Kindle, reading the newspaper, and fishing.
As we got settled, the slightest hint of a rainy drizzle began. “This weather is perfect for fishing!” we declared as we put up the awning to protect readers from the spattering of rain drops. We saw other fishing boats head to shore, but lest we take this as a warning of Things To Come, we merely laughed and settled in more comfortably.
On the heels of the Hint of Drizzle came The Storm To End All Storms. Later, we found out that 1.75 inches of rain fell in the next 15 minutes. At the time, we were more concerned with the lost hats and the soaking grandma. But I digress.
As The Storm To End All Storms broke over our heads, we rushed our supplies, and our grandma, under various towels, foolishly thinking that would keep them from getting soaked. Other than the sky, the rain came out of nowhere and caused the new captain a fair bit of concern. I had the owner of the smart phone call my mom to tell her we were behind the island, since visibility had gone from sunny to the-nose-in-front-of-your-face in under 30 seconds. The plastic deck chairs – curse you, plastic deck chairs! – began to fly around in the sudden wind, and The Bucket, which takes 15 minutes to start when conditions are PERFECT, decided not to start. I asked the owner of the smart phone to convey this information to my mother.
When she got disconnected and called back, all she heard was a loud wooshing noise. Naturally, she assumed we had been lost at sea and ordered the food for our incredibly lavish pending wake, while the rain washed my contact lenses out of my eyes and The Bucket still refused to start.
Eventually, between my husband standing rightnextotheengine listening for it to turn over, and a few false starts, we got the motor going. By this point, we had apparently lost the anchor and somehow drifted into the sandy, reedy part of the lake so perfect for fishing – but not so perfect for motors. My sister and my husband tugged on the line attaching us to the anchor, found us, indeed, still attached, and I pushed the boat to its top speed (nearly 4 miles an hour) to help them pull it out of the lake, 478 pounds heavier from sea weed and sundry.
At this point, the canopy we had put up to stay dry in the drizzle had become a major hindrance – and majorly wet – in monsoon conditions. The awning caught the wind from the storm and sent us back into the shallow, weedy part of the lake. I hollered at my husband – the only way to be heard – to put the canopy down, which he did with some difficulty, and we were off!
But we were still heading backwards because all the passengers were in the back of the boat, with only the anchor in the front to balance us out. As lightning began to flash across the sky, I yelled at my husband to go to the front of the boat and for god’s sake lay down so you don’t get struck by lightning. He obliged again.
He is quite obliging – even though I told everyone to put on life jackets in the event that our boat was struck by lightning and we had to abandon the burning ship, and even though his smelled funny, he put it on while my sister and my grandma remained defiantly assertive about their swimming abilities. Swimming abilities aren’t going to save you when you get konked on the head by debris from the boat, people.
As we puttered out from behind the island, my husband told me I was going the wrong way, I threatened to end him (which would not have been very difficult in those circumstances), and visibility was still just about the-nose-in-front-of-your-face-if-your-contacts-were-on-your-nose-and-huh-they-sure-were.
When we finally emerged from behind the island, I took an ill-advised vote: should we head straight for home or putter along the shore to avoid getting struck by lightning in the middle of the lake? The majority rule took us closer to the only other boat in the middle of the lake, a speed boat that looked, to all intents and purposes, wet.
As we got much, much closer, we realized it was my godfather and my mother, out to save us in completely soaked rain coats and life jackets. My godfather’s glasses are about 1.75 inches thick, and rain precludes the usefulness of any sort of corrective eyewear, so my mom was directing him as he drove the boat. Everything that was happening was so incredibly safe.
Through a series of hand gestures and some belabored screaming, we determined that the best course of action would be to get as close to possible to shore and putter, against proper boating protocol, back home in a clockwise fashion. Figuring that we were the only two boats stupid enough to be on the lake in The Storm To End All Storms, we proceded as such (and, luckily, figured right).
We eventually reached the family compound and, amidst waves and wind, I carefully steered the boat between four posts back to the dock. My sister leapt off the boat and ran to the other pier to help direct my still-blind godfather as he tried to dock the speed boat. My husband quickly tied up the boat and at the very moment that he had us secured by all four posts, the. rain. stopped. The sun came out. The birds resumed their chirping. Flowers blossomed. Double rainbows appeared. Children laughed and frolicked in the drying grass.
My grandma and I laughed a bit and began to gather up the items that hadn’t flown from the boat during our little adventure. As I cleared rain water off of the seats, my grandma picked up two soggy books, a 40 pound soaking wet towel, a hat, a Kindle, four full water bottles, a tackle box, a container of sunscreen, a cell phone, and my husband’s completely wet Birkenstocks. She walked over to the pier, put one foot over the edge of the boat, and went straight into the water.
Actually, if she had gone straight into the water, she might have gotten hurt. As it was, she managed to fall between the boat – on top of the sharp edges of the starboard pontoon – and the tire holding the boat off of the dock post, on top of the rope that tied us to it.
She was laying there, looking suspicious, so I began screaming bloody murder, and my mom had my youngest sister call 9-1-1 while she debated if she should jump in wearing her life jacket and rain coat and shoes to swim ashore and administer CPR, and I jumped in to the water to help my grandma.
My husband ran over and between the two of us we managed to really hack her off. “I’m fine! Let me go!” she said as we grabbed her arms. She walked to the beach, took a shower, and was completely fine.
I picked up the Kindle and other objects from the bottom of the lake and went back to sweeping excess fluids off of The Bucket.
The 9-1-1 people called my sister’s cell phone back and she told them it was a false alarm.
My godfather finally did get the speed boat docked, where upon he promptly dropped a key between the slats of the pier into the lake, but by then the weather had cleared enough that my sister could jump right in and get it back.
All in all, we only lost one smart phone, one Kindle, two hearing aids, a summer hat, and most of our dignity.
I made sweeping claims about how I would never pilot The Bucket again, etc., but my godfather pointed out that everything that could go wrong on a boating excursion had already gone wrong. No one had died, and the boat was still floating, so I had proven that I could survive the most adverse possible circumstances. I thought this was a remarkably Zen observation on his part, and he brought me a broom to enable better cleaning of the seaweed monstrosity that was the anchor.
All in all, there were far more boating incidents, broken teeth, and bloody noses on the road home from New Jersey that I had originally anticipated.